Clifford Geertz’s Interpretive Anthropology

Between Text, Experience and Theory

by Katarzyna Majbroda (Author)
©2016 Monographs 172 Pages
Series: Cross-Roads, Volume 9


Over the last decades Clifford Geertz’ interpretive anthropology has played an important role in the field of socio-cultural anthropology. The study presents the critical reception of his thoughts in Western countries and Polish anthropology. Interpretive anthropology is based on the category of interpretation and the concept of thick description: the assumed indexical nature of reality and the possibility of unraveling its order through semiotic analysis has influenced the epistemological reflection in anthropology, the approach to theory, fieldwork and the research process.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • A Few Words by Way of an Introduction
  • Chapter I. Rethinking anthropology as a science
  • Chapter II. Reading Clifford Geertz or the unbearable lightness of overinterpretation in socio-cultural anthropology
  • Chapter III. Reception of ‘thick description’ in historiography. The case of Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre
  • Chapter IV. In the circle of symbols, meanings and signs. Semiotic inspirations of interpretive anthropology
  • Chapter V. Parallel biographies: Clifford Geertz and Claude Lèvi-Strauss
  • Chapter VI. The impact of the interpretive turn on qualitative research methods, or influence of categories drawn from literary studies on anthropological research practices
  • Chapter VII. Going beyond the text. On experience and emotions in anthropological cognition
  • Bibliography

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A Few Words by Way of an Introduction

Sometimes a theory that is supposed to open a new door may paradoxically contribute to its closing. This happens when the intellectual assumptions and ideas a theory is based on become detached from the context in which they emerged. While their free movement across disciplines and divisions in the scientific space is a natural course of things, the danger appears when concepts and terms start being used independently, and a multi-layered thinking style is reduced to one, schematically repeated insight.

Interpretive anthropology is one of the new methodological trends in the human sciences. It is rooted in a new perspective that has modified the traditional, empirical epistemologies in favor of interpretive ones. Let us turn for a moment to Clifford Geertz’s definition of culture as a nongenetic control mechanism that functions both as a regulation of an already existing reality and a construction of a new reality. Interpretation is not a tool; it is the essence of being human. In this sense, the interpretive perspective in cultural anthropology is new wine in old bottles.

For a time, the anthropological space has been dominated by the interpretive approach and concepts related to it. Today, we witness the emergence of new perspectives and strands that look for fresh ways of practicing the discipline, and transform anthropological discourses by including new categories or redefining and reassessing old ones. This is the way the history of the discipline and the history of schools and strands is made: it consolidates the viewpoints of eminent thinkers and figures. There is no doubt that interpretive anthropology as represented by Clifford Geertz played an important role in the transformations that took place in the socio-cultural anthropology over the span of the last decades. It is also beyond question that this approach has been innovative enough to inspire subsequent generations of anthropologists. And yet, my focus on this approach stems first of all from my belief that there is a need to reconsider interpretive anthropology as a historical approach, which had an impact on defining a new anthropological cognition, on reinterpreting fieldwork, and above all, on the way the relationship of the researcher with his/her interlocutors has been perceived. I am aware of the fact that Geertz was also a fieldworker; he authored such books as The Development of the Javanese Economy: A Socio-Cultural Approach (1956) and The Religion of Java (1960), Agricultural Involution. The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963), Peddlers and Princes: Social Development and Economic Change in Two Indonesian Towns (1963), The Social History of an ← 7 | 8 → Indonesian Town (1965), Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (1968).

However, this book deals first of all with those aspects of his anthropology which are saturated with thinking about anthropology in terms of the practice of decoding meanings and reading the texture of reality – the aspects related to theoretical reflection. Since they influenced greatly the reorientation of the discipline toward text and literature, and became one of the triggers for the reflexive turn in the discipline, the book focuses on Geertz’s discursive influence on the literaturization of anthropology. Thus, the interpretive turn is presented here along with the literary turn and the reflexive turn. It is worth stressing that the interpretive turn has been linked with these two other turns by numerous commentators whose opinions have been recalled and critically discussed in this book.

The book is inspired by a contrariness of sorts, and a willingness to show that interpretive anthropology, as proposed by Geertz, has something more to offer than the assumptions that ‘culture is a text’ and ‘an anthropologist is a writer’ understood literally. Several sections in this book have been published in Polish anthropological journals before. In the book they are presented in modified and extended versions.

To some extent it has also been written against the opinion (often voiced in the Polish anthropological milieu) that Geertz’s thought is no longer inspiring and that he is quoted too often. Indeed, many Polish anthropologists I refer to in this book have taken up numerous questions related to interpretive anthropology. They indicated both their innovative aspects (that had an impact on the development of the discipline), and their weaknesses and misuses. In Polish anthropology one of the key advocates and commentators of Geertz’s thought is Wojciech J. Burszta1; critical and affirmative reception of his thought may be found in works by Katarzyna Kaniowska, Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, Marcin Brocki, Marcin Lubaś, Waldemar Kuligowski, Mariusz Czubaj, Dariusz Czaja, Wojciech ← 8 | 9 → Kruszelnicki2 and Jarema Drozdowicz3. One has to mention here the book Clifford Geertz – lokalna lektura (Clifford Geertz – local reading) (2003) (edited by Dorota Wolska and Marcin Brocki) that played an important role in the Polish reception of Geertz. Apart from his essays previously unpublished in Poland, it included an interview with Geertz conducted by Hana Červinkova and texts by Polish anthropologists and researchers of culture. They all show the reception of Geertz’s thought and illustrate its different interpretations and uses in the contexts of local knowledge.4

This book is an attempt at reconsidering several questions related to interpretive anthropology and at showing that concepts developed by Geertz, along with the literary, textual and interpretive turns in anthropology, mean something more than mere borrowing of the tools and concepts of literary studies by anthropologists. In the chapters that follow, I will try to convince my readers that the reorientation of anthropology toward broadly understood text, and the fact that such concepts and categories as narrative, fiction and interpretation became part of anthropological discourses, does not mean that anthropology has turned into literature and an anthropologist has turned into a writer. In this book I reflect on the historical moment of the emergence of the literary and interpretive turn, in the context of a transformation of thinking styles in the social and human sciences. I am also interested in the social and geopolitical conditions that prompted anthropologists to turn toward critical analysis and interpretation of anthropological texts which are vehicles of anthropological knowledge and result from fieldwork. Another important element of critical reception of interpretive anthropology is its influence on perceiving anthropological research, fieldwork, and first of all, the research process. As I try to show, Geertz’s thick description and the metaphor of text he proposes have a significant impact on the way anthropology is practiced today, in particular the kind of anthropology that employs qualitative research in its methodology.

In the humanities it is rare for a new theory or research method to initiate a radical change, or an intellectual breakthrough of great theoretical and cognitive importance. In other words, it is not common to witness or take part in ← 9 | 10 → transformations which would invalidate previous achievements of the human and social sciences by radical criticism and by proposing new epistemological and methodological solutions, and which would close the ways of transmitting methods and concepts applied thus far. The first chapter of this book, Rethinking anthropology as science, deals with this subject. It is hard not to notice that the majority of anthropological discussions on the so-called crisis of representation in the social sciences and the literary and interpretive turn of the discipline, is a repercussion of the reception of Clifford Geertz’s thought presented in Interpretation of Culture. Selected Essays, Local Knowledge and Work and Life. His criticism of modern anthropology founded on the belief in the existence of objective knowledge, the correspondence theory of truth, its tendency to create generalized, essentializing representations of researched communities and cultures coincided with the publication of Writing Culture The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (1986) and the article The Literary Turn In Contemporary Anthropology (1987) by Bob Scholte. I will elaborate more on the debate on the literary and textual turn of the discipline in the second chapter of this book Reading Clifford Geertz or unbearable lightness of over interpretation in socio-cultural anthropology. I will show there how principle categories of interpretive anthropology have been absorbed by anthropological discourse and how they have been overinterpreted. As a result, Geertz started to be perceived – not only in anthropology, but also beyond it – as an advocate of blurred genres in social and human sciences and, what is more important for the questions raised in this book, as a founder and supporter of reducing culture to text and anthropology, to one of the writing genres.

In the next chapter, Reception of ‘thick description’ in historiography. The case of Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre, I illustrate how inspirations drawn from Geertz’s interpretive anthropology may resonate in historiographic space by showing the reception of the essay The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton. The main focus of this chapter is the reception of ‘thick description’ by historians. The discussion of Geertz’s literary inspirations that are usually read into the metaphor ‘culture is a text’, is continued in the subsequent chapter, In the circle of symbols, meanings and signs. Semiotic inspirations of interpretive anthropology, in which semiotic principles of the concepts developed by Geertz are presented. In this chapter, I show that Geertz’s interpretive anthropology includes numerous references to Charles Sanders Pierce’s semiotics, which questions the pertinence of interpretations of the metaphor of text – the key concept of his anthropology – that had been presented so far. It opens the space for polemics with anthropologists who claim that Geertz initiated the departure ← 10 | 11 → of anthropology from fieldwork and its reorientation to literally (philologically) understood text.

In the chapter Parallel biographies: Clifford Geertz and Claude Lèvi-Strauss, Geertz’s ambiguous attitude to scientistic strands within anthropology is also discussed. Its illustration is the uneasy coexistence of Geertz and Claude Lévi-Strauss within the discipline, even though their seemingly completely different styles of thinking shared some common elements.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
literary turn in anthropology epistemology semiotic qualitative research
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 172 pp.

Biographical notes

Katarzyna Majbroda (Author)

Katarzyna Majbroda is Assistant Professor at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Wroclaw, Poland. Her interests include 20th literary theory, gender criticism, methodology and theories of socio-cultural anthropology and cultural critique.


Title: Clifford Geertz’s Interpretive Anthropology
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174 pages